17-6

“Anla!” Al rushed over and hugged her. “How are you doing?”

“I’m fine, Al.” She was surprised at how good it felt to hug him. She smiled and stepped back. “Look at you. You look like you’ve already got some muscle. I take it you’ve been keeping up with your training.”

“I have. Look.” While still unfinished, he had managed to build a shelter out of all the wood he had chopped.

“That’s impressive. Where’s Tel?”

He shrugged. “I haven’t seen much of him in the last few days. I think it has something to do with kouriya. He might be restless from staying in one spot for too long.”

“He should be happy that we’re leaving, then.”

“Where’s Raulin? I want to show him what I did.”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“No? He wasn’t with you?”

“No, he wasn’t.”

Raulin showed up to the camp an hour later. He sounded like the Raulin she knew, but he only spoke to Al and didn’t even glance in her direction. “Where’s Tel?” he asked after Al had gone over his progress.

“He’s been kind of irritable in the last few days. He goes out and meditates in the woods after he blows up at me.”

“Blows up? Telbarisk? Really, what did he do?”

“This morning he said I was chewing too loudly, then that my humming was annoying, and finally he yelled at me for keeping him up all night with my snoring.”

“Tel said that? The tall guy. The grivven.”

“Yes.”

“That doesn’t seem a bit strange to you, Wizard?”

“I don’t like it and it’s not nice, but everyone needs to blow off steam every once in a while. I’m trying to be patient with him.”

Tel chose this time to walk back into camp. He gave a brief smile to Anla and Raulin before grabbing the food sack and heading out of the camp without a word.

Anla was a bit crestfallen. She had hoped to speak with Tel about Raulin and see if he could give her some advice. At the very least, speaking with him about anything had always made her feel better. She would have to wait.

They arrived back in town and took rooms on the edge of town. “I think it’s time Mr. and Mrs. Auslen make a reappearance,” she said to Al while they walked upstairs.

“Yeah? That’s a good idea. It might help Raulin if we can reestablish our reputation in town, maybe get some leads for his next contract. Hey, Raulin? We’re going to put you with Tel.”

“Good,” he said, not looking back, “I didn’t want to sleep next to the whore anyway.”

Anla flinched and Al stopped dead in his tracks, his eyes wide. “Did he just call you a whore? What happened up there?”

“Nothing,” she said quietly.

As they put their things down in their room, he said, “Do you want to talk about it? Tel has helped me become a better listener. You can tell me about it and I can listen to what happened. I won’t interrupt.”

“Thank you, Al. I’m really appreciative of your offer and I’m proud of you for working on that skill, but I’d rather not talk about my time at the shrine.” As great as his progress was, she still couldn’t see Al handling the situation well.

“No? Could you tell me what it was like, then? I was thinking about visiting, to sell my wood, but I didn’t want to intrude.”

That was fine to her. She began telling him about the rings, the classes, the food, the hot springs. All the while she changed into her tan blouse and multi-colored skirt so that she could walk around the city. Knowing that Al was prudish about her nudity, she turned away while she changed. When she turned back, she stopped mid-sentence at the look on his face. “I know you haven’t seen a girl in a while, Al, but really…” she said with a laugh.

He cleared his throat. “Um, as someone who pays attention to my client’s need and issues, I’ve come to see patterns in their injuries. I’ve had more than a few women come to see me with black eyes and burns and I’m fairly sure it was because their husbands have violent tempers. You have two long, almost black bruises on the left side of your face. Who slapped you, Anla?”

Her smiled dropped. “That was a woman who was upset with me.”

“I would hope she wasn’t pleased with you. And the thumb and finger bruise on your arm?”

Her stomach seized. She grabbed her brush from her pack and began running it through her hair.

“Anla? Was it Raulin?”

“Al, I said I wasn’t going to speak about it.” She brushed her hair hard. “If I change my mind, I’ll talk with you.”

“Sometimes I would mention that I knew what was happening to the women, and I’d tell them that it wasn’t their fault and that they should leave their husbands or go to the police. And most wouldn’t say anything. I don’t think I ever saw any of them again. I never knew if it was the right thing to say, but I didn’t want them to feel bad about it and themselves.”

She managed to say, “Duly noted.”

“Is it connected to him calling you a whore? You’re not, Anla. I’m sorry that I thought that you might be walking the streets, back in Calaba.”

“Thank you, Al. I suspect it has something to do with it.”

“You should talk with him, sort it out. He might be confused again.”

“Again?” she asked, stopping her brushing.

“Yeah. When you were kidnapped by the baerd hunters. He said you were tumbling with a guy in the bar and that we should be patient while you said goodbye to him. Oh, that was Sakilei,” he said to himself. “That wasn’t true then.”

“He said I was tumbling with a man I had just met?” she asked, her voice a dangerous sort of quiet.

“It was a bit more casual, but we were waiting for you at the tree, like we had discussed, and he told us you were definitely going to be late because you were in the inn with some new guy.”

She had been less shocked when the Lady had slapped her across the face. It wasn’t so much that Raulin had drawn that conclusion; she saw that, from a different perspective, it had probably looked that way. No, it was the sudden realization of many connected issues that caused the shake in her hand to return.

“I’m sure at some point we’ll talk,” she heard herself say. “I think I’m going for…a stroll.”

“Want some company?”

“No,” she said as she closed the door.

This was her fault, she thought as she stepped out onto the street. Not in a direct way, and she refused to feel guilt over it, but she had caused this whole rift between her and Raulin. It was a misunderstanding, an omission of a piece of information that she would make sure she remembered every time she spoke to him, if she ever did again.

She gathered the facts to be sure. Raulin was possessive of her, or at least had been. The first thing he asked her when there was a slight possibility that she was on another man’s arm, was whether she was or not, sometimes eschewing small talk for a “so, you two are together?”. Her and Al, her and Sakilei, even her uncle had been suspect to him before he knew their relationship. He’d dashed in at the libertine ball like someone from one of Al’s books when he thought she was in danger, though now she questioned whether he had been worried about her being raped or about her consensually sleeping with the earl. He’d almost taken Ripole the baerd hunter’s head off when the man was pressing her against the tree. The sour look he got on his face when she spoke about her past beaus, the times she had caught him interrupting men introducing themselves, so many things that added up to his true feelings about her: “you are mine and no one else’s”.

He’d been shocked when she’d told him her age and had backed off completely from any romantic gesture. (At least he had a code he stuck by.) Then, she turned seventeen and that very day he’d kissed her. And since that point he’d tried very hard to bed her. She’d gently rejected that idea, but she hadn’t said “no” to him. Though she’d never seen a good romantic relationship in her life, she wanted to give him a chance. The way she had felt about him had given her hope. But, maybe she should have told him she had just wanted to remain friends.

At least he had been respectful of her pace and open to that arrangement. She had moved forward when she thought things wouldn’t sour between them should she decide to end things. But two nights of sleeping next to her and kissing in the hot springs, moving just a little more closer to that “yes” she admitted to herself that she might have said, wasn’t enough for him. He’d had to satisfy himself with someone else.

Anla wondered if that had bothered her more than she was willing to admit. It didn’t matter, it was a moot point. He absolutely hated her and she didn’t think they would ever recover from this, which hurt so much more than she had thought. She’d had precious few friends in her life she hated losing one. Especially him. Perhaps that was why this stung so horribly.

It began to sprinkle a little as she walked the narrow, cobbled streets. She would have to return to the inn soon. She loathed to, again, try to outsmart someone else, but she needed to be prepared for what Raulin could say or do. Where was his mind? He still hated her. He had treated Al and Tel the same as he always had, but he had said nothing to her until that one line in the inn. She was still a whore to him. He still believed all the venom Lady Karninth had said about her and she was sure this was the one lie that had driven him into a lathered frenzy. He was not willing to see things from her perspective. She would have to continue to bear the abuse until a callus hardened and they formed an uneasy truce.

She finished her walk before she had time to think of how this affected the chalice spell. There was six months to think of something. For the time being, there was no rush and no need for her to try to make things better at the cost of her pride.

Raulin was leaving as she was entering. His eyes fixed on her as she dropped her gaze and moved out of his way. At least it was hard to tell what he was feeling when he wore his mask. She could pretend he was something other than furious.

Anla kept out of Raulin’s way while he worked his theft contract. He didn’t ask for her help, she didn’t offer it. Sometimes he brought Tel as his tether, but he was often scarce or in a foul mood, so he brought Al. She had beseeched the wizard not to get involved; he promised to say nothing to Raulin, but made it quite clear that this was most definitely not something he was happy with.

The two were gone when Anla awoke Wednesday morning to Tel pacing across the floor to her room. “You’re going to walk a ditch into the floor,” she said.

He looked up from chewing on his thumbnail. “Anla,what happened at the shrine?”

She froze. “Why, has Raulin said anything about it?”

“No. He doesn’t say anything.” Small miracles, she thought. “But I feel tension between you two.”

As she watched him continue to pace, she had a thought. “Is this why you’re acting strange? Can you sense things through our connection?”

“I don’t know. I just know that things feel wrong.”

“Let’s go for a stroll.”

Tel continued to chew on his nail while they walked the streets. She had hoped to ask him questions in hopes of getting some insight into what had happened to Raulin, but he was distractedly agitated. Stopping to sit on the edge of a farmer’s field only lessened his anxiety a little. It would be selfish to ask anything of him in that state.

“There’s a pretty cloud over there,” she said, pointing at the sky. “It’s like someone painted a rainbow on it.”

Tel shook his foot and barely looked at it.

“You know, I don’t know why I didn’t check this before.” She rose to her knees and placed the back of her hand on his forehead, then on his cheek. Though warm and sweaty, he didn’t seem feverish. “Are you feeling well? Are you nauseous or have a runny nose?”

“Nauseous? Yes, my stomach doesn’t feel well. My nose is fine.”

“You might have a stomach flu. Have you thrown up? Have you been eating?”

Yes,” he said, affecting a spoiled tone. “I’ve been eating. I haven’t thrown up anything.”

“All right,” she said and they walked back to the inn. They stopped at some of the shops and Anla bought Tel some sweets, hoping that might make him happier. The confectioner’s dog sat in the doorway, barring the way. He growled when she moved near him.

“I’m sorry, miss, he’s just…”

The dog whined, a high-pitched noise that pierced her ears, then urinated on the welcome mat.

“Damn dog!” he said, grabbing his broom and running out from behind the counter to shoo him. He connected the end with the dog’s rump and send the pooch running down the street. “I’m sorry again, miss. I’ll clean this up.”

“No hurry,” she said.

They waited while he pulled a wet mop from the back and cleaned the floor, tossing the mat onto the sidewalk. “Whole town’s been acting strange. I had a mess of squirrels on my balcony this morning, tapping the window with their acorns. I thought they hibernated by this point.”

“I understand the feeling. I’ve been feeling a little flustered lately.”

“You’re friend seems a bit out of it, too.” They both looked and saw Tel take a step, then think better of it and turn around, then start again several times. “Perhaps there’s a foul air.”

“Hmm,” she said, as the man finished. What if that’s what had affected Raulin? Was there something between what happened to him and what was happening to Tel?

Al returned late that evening. She hadn’t fallen asleep, so she sat up to see how he was. “He stole the buttons,” he whispered. “We’ll be heading out tomorrow.”

“Good,” she said. “Have you been feeling all right?”

“Yes, why?”

“Well, Tel seems like he’s in a strange mood and Raulin, well…”

“Raulin seemed perfectly fine today. And yesterday, too. He’s just, um, icy when he speaks of you.”

“Oh. All right,” she said. At least she could close her hand into a fist, but only because she hadn’t seen Raulin all day. One finger down for good food, one finger for shelter, one finger for good conversation, one finger for making money (she considered her hoard large enough), and her thumb for not using her magic negatively. She kissed it, cherishing the comfort of the routine before falling asleep.

Both her and Al startled awake to banging on the door. “We leave, now,” Raulin said in a booming voice.

“What? What’s going on?” Al asked, yawning and rubbing his eyes.

“I don’t know, but we’re leaving immediately.”

They both stumbled in the dark, dressed, and stuffed their clothes and effects into their packs. Raulin and a very fidgety Tel were standing in the hallway, but only until they saw that they had come out of their room. They both hustled down the stairs and out of the inn.

“Which way…?” Raulin asked, looking up and down the dark street.

“East! East, east,” Tel said.

“Could you let us know why you woke us up in the middle of the night and forced us on the road?” Al asked.

“Telbarisk has never steered me wrong and he said we needed to fly. We were going to leave tomorrow anyway. We’ll sleep on the road and be off in the first light.”

They walked just past the edge of town, where they heard howls that sent shivers down their spines. “Wolves?” Al asked.

“Just dogs,” Anla said, though she’d never heard of a whole town’s worth baying like a pack.

Telbarisk fell to his knees gasping for air, grabbing the grass beneath him. She ran to help him up and almost made it to him before she was shaken to one side and fell onto the road. She stayed low, the ground heaving and lurching below her.

The earthquake went on rumbling for several heaving breaths. All four had experienced tremors before, Telbarisk the most due to the seismic nature of his island. He stood, shaking the dust from his pants. “It’s gone,” he said.

“You feel better?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said with a deep, manic laugh. “It’s like a weight has been lifted.”

“I think you just saved our lives,” Raulin said. “Thank you.”

“Oh,” Al said, facing back to the town. “It’s too bad Sakilei isn’t here.”

“Why is that, Wizard?”

“He would have won the sunset game.” He pointed behind them and they all turned. In a morbidly poetic sort of way, the lava spewing from Mount Kalista did look like the blood of their enemies had painted the sky.

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